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Unlikely Alliance

By: Claude R. Marx
October 8, 2018

istory repeats itself. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Americans viewed recently arrived immigrants as insufficiently accustomed to liberal political practices and too Catholic. There was widespread fear that the newcomers would change the country’s fiber and diminish its prosperity. Several important political figures took center stage in that demographic and cultural battle, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt and New York Governor Alfred E. Smith were two of the most compelling. Both have been featured in many extensive biographies and histories, but Senior Politico editor Terry Golway’s Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party is the first to feature both and analyze their successful effort to shape the nation’s political climate.

Were it not for their political ambitions, it is unlikely that Frank’s and Al’s paths would have crossed. Roosevelt was a Hudson Valley patrician whose family had been successful in business and politics. He approached politics with a reformist’s impulse to work for good government. Smith, by contrast, a product of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, symbolized the grit and determination of working-class immigrant families to move up the socioeconomic ladder. For him, politics was all about helping people. He didn’t care if he had to be a cog in the quintessential machine of Tammany Hall and was even willing to tolerate some corrupt practices.

The two men formed a mutually beneficial alliance, but were never intimate friends. They disagreed vehemently when FDR became president (a job Smith had run for) because Smith felt that FDR had expanded government too much. Golway writes that their feud “became one of the New Deal’s most fascinating, and tragic, storylines.”

Smith, a devout Roman Catholic, was born in New York but his immigrant parents were part of the wave of newcomers who caused major changes in the country’s late 19th- and early 20th-century makeup. Because of his gregarious interpersonal skills, public speaking prowess, and self-determination he moved up the Empire State’s political ladder, eventually holding leadership posts in the New York Legislature before ascending to the governorship. Despite his lack of formal education—Smith dropped out after elementary school in order to work to support his family—he became an expert in the legislative process and used that knowledge to push through bills that improved services for the poor. Smith’s reformist attitude was unique in New York, as most of his contemporaries were pro-business and had little interest in spending government money, especially on programs to help the working class. Grover Cleveland, who was both governor and eventually president, symbolized the Democrats’ pro-business approach.

Roosevelt grew up on his family’s estate 84 miles and a world away from Smith’s childhood home.  Visitors touring it today are impressed by its refined, but not ostentatious, elegance. FDR was often ebullient and usually optimistic, but he had a subdued demeanor that could come across as haughty and condescending. Yet he was adept at empathizing and connecting with people, even those outside of his social circle. His two years as a New York State Senator were uneventful. He and Smith had a passing acquaintance in Albany but FDR spent his formative political years in national politics, as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. As a political operator, Roosevelt would have done Machiavelli proud. Smith described him by noting: “He was the kindest man who ever lived. But don’t ever get in his way.”

Golway does not break much new ground retelling either man’s political rise. But by weaving their lives together in an engaging narrative he tells the story of a long-ago period that laid the groundwork for some of our current political battles.

Smith was governor of New York for eight years (1919-20 and 1923-1928) and formed an alliance with many of the social welfare activists who had once disdained him as little more than a party hack. Golway notes the contrast between Washington’s conservative mood and the progressive agenda Smith advanced in Albany. He achieved his goals by “cutting deals and twisting arms of Republicans who controlled the assembly” and working with his fellow Tammany Hall veterans who had disproportionate sway in the Democratic controlled senate. His achievements included expanded workplace safety laws, increased spending on health programs, and more funding for transportation.

Smith first ran for the presidency in 1924. He didn’t get far, but four years later he became his party’s nominee. FDR, who was learning to walk again after being stricken with polio, backed Smith strongly and delivered a speech on his behalf at the Democratic Convention, in part to reassure non-Catholics and others who were worried that Smith would push the country too far left and take orders from the Pope.

Smith lost badly to Herbert Hoover after an extremely nasty campaign that offered voters a stark choice between competing visions for the country. Frank and Al offers us a lot about Smith, but Golway didn’t use his formidable research and writing prowess to tell us more about Hoover. It would have been fascinating to learn Hoover’s perspective on the campaign, his thoughts about Smith, and what he, as a Quaker, thought about the prospect of the country having its first Catholic president.

When Smith ran for president, at his behest FDR ran for governor. Smith lost, but FDR won and set the stage to run for president against Hoover four years later. Hoover, a great man and mediocre president who was overwhelmed by the onset of the Great Depression, was very vulnerable in 1932 and both Smith and FDR wanted to run against him.

Smith thought he was entitled to another shot at the brass ring. FDR, who as a governor built upon Smith’s progressive record, thought it was his turn. The fight was bitter and FDR’s ultimate success was managed by several people who had been instrumental in Smith’s successes. Golway describes the events in great detail and occasionally uses a technique that journalist Dan Barry calls “informed imagination.” It is an effective, if controversial literary device but it works well here.

When FDR became president, his relations with Smith were usually cordial, but distant. Smith, by now a successful business executive, became a harsh critic of the New Deal, which he felt gave too much power to the “heavy, cold, clammy hand of bureaucracy.” He also said the best progress resulted from “private individuals, working without compulsion, control or even suggestion, from the government itself.”

While FDR and subsequent Democrats held on to many working- and middle-class voters, a sizable number left and became so-called Reagan Democrats and then supporters of President Donald Trump. Those wanting to understand how we arrived at the current political moment will learn a lot from reading Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party.